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It's official: State Senate Democrats gain supermajority

New York State Senate

Democrats who lead the state Senate announced Monday that they have won enough seats to hold a supermajority. That means they can override vetoes by the governor and potentially change the balance of power at the state capital.

After wading through an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 elections, several Democratic candidates in the Senate have pulled ahead of their Republican opponents and have declared victory.

Forty-one races have been decided for the Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she’s confident of a 42nd win in Westchester, where Democrat Peter Harckham was challenged by Republican Rob Astorino. That gives Democrats a supermajority, she said, for the first time in the state’s history.

“New Yorkers have not only chosen to return a Democratic majority,” Stewart-Cousins said, “but they’ve chosen to return a supermajority.”

In addition to defending seats on Long Island, Democrats flipped several upstate seats, including one in the Buffalo region and two in the Rochester area.

The victory generated praise from progressive groups, who have long asked the Legislature to approve measures opposed by Cuomo, including imposing new taxes on the wealthy, and giving more money to public schools.

Assembly Democrats already have a supermajority, and now both houses of the Legislature potentially have the power to enact policies without the agreement of the governor by overriding any of his vetoes.

Stewart-Cousins hinted at that new balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government, saying the wins show that New Yorkers support the Democrats’ agenda and want to see it carried out.

“And we will assert ourselves accordingly,” she said.

But Stewart-Cousins was quick to downplay any differences with Cuomo, saying they worked together to achieve many changes, including making it easier to vote and strengthening the right to choose an abortion.

“It’s a lot easier, frankly, when you are all rowing towards the same shore,” she said.

Cuomo, asked about the Senate supermajority in an unrelated news conference, said he envisions working with the Legislature on common goals in the new year, including battling the ongoing pandemic and dealing with the state’s $15 billion budget deficit.

“The way that state government really works is through the budget, all the main things are done in the budget,” Cuomo said. “Supermajority or not, it doesn’t really make a difference.”

Governors in New York have the authority to make broad policy changes in budget bill language, but the Legislature has limited ability to alter those changes. Lawmakers can only approve or reject spending items in the budget.

Cuomo, who said he supported the Democratic candidates and worked hard to elect them, said he can’t envision a situation where all 42 Democrats would vote to oppose him on an issue.

The Senate Democrats were not hesitant to point out disagreements, though, with their Republican colleagues who ruled the Senate for much of the past century.

Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy and Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt claimed victory in several Senate races on Nov. 4, the day after Election Day. That was before absentee ballots, largely cast by Democrats, were counted.

At the time, Ortt called it a “repudiation” of one-party control, as well as a rejection of some of the Democrats’ policies, that included bail reform and other criminal justice changes.

“The people of New York, of all political stripes, did not like what they saw the last two years. And they want to see something different,” Ortt said then.

But with some of those seats ultimately going to Democrats, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, who ran the Senate campaigns, said the Republicans spoke too soon. He called their earlier remarks “one of the greatest self-owns of all time.”

Gianaris said the GOP strategy in nine key races made an issue of the Democrats’ criminal justice changes. But Democrats won seven of those seats, six of them by higher numbers than in 2018.

“The opponents of bail reform took their best shot and they failed, miserably,” Gianaris said.

In a statement, Ortt did not acknowledge the losses, saying that he still expected Republicans to flip some blue seats to red in the remaining uncalled Senate races, and that the GOP won all seats held by “returning incumbent members.”

He also promised to push back against the Democrats’ agenda that he predicted will “usher in a new era of radical, increasingly socialist policies, unlike anything before seen in this state.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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